Inside The Isolate: A Minnesota Man Visits North Korea

Week 3 of reader-contributed travel stories takes us to an unlikely location–perhaps THE unlikeliest. 

North Korea: 

map North Korea

For this story, I interviewed a man who went there in 2010. 


A Minnesotan in North Korea

Jim likes to travel to places most others wouldn’t. (He’s also been to Iran.) I met the adventurous, middle-aged Caucasian in a coffee shop in Minneapolis.

[The reason for not using his full name is that though he’s uncertain he’ll ever want to step foot back into North Korea, he’s also not interested in burning any bridges. And one group of people that North Korea is cautious of letting into their country is journalists. This level of caution probably falls in line with what you’d expect from this unfriendly nation. But there is also much ahead that might surprise you.]

It was easy for Jim to get to North Korea. All it took to go was passing background checks, paying visa fees, and signing up with a tour company. Jim’s impression is that any “average American” can go, he said.

He went with a group of 9 or 10 people: one Korean-American, a Chinese-American, two African-Americans, and 5-6 other Caucasians. They went through a US non-profit that works to build international relations. Once Jim got in contact with them, they made all the arrangements. The total cost of the 11-day trip was $2-2,500 including hotels and most meals. Jim said that entry in North Korea necessitates such coordinated tours. You can’t just go it alone.

On the day of departure in August 2010, they all flew into Beijing, China. This is where one can get a flight into the capital of North Korea, Pyongyang. Pyongyang is where Jim and his group would spend most of their time.

Pyongyang airport (pictures taken by Jim)
Pyongyang airport upon their tour’s arrival (pictures taken by Jim)

They were taken to a hotel in the capital which was “very nice,” said Jim. There were several other Westerners staying there–mostly on business, he figured. But a few he thought were there for political reasons, these particular foreigners sporting socialist propaganda on their t-shirts evidencing an assumed support for North Korea’s ruling party and their Communist ideology.

Jim shared that only five countries don’t have diplomatic relations with North Korea: the US, South Korea, Japan, Israel, and France. There was even an international business trade show being organized in the capital while Jim was there.

State-provided tour guides would lead Jim’s group through the country. Outside of their lodging, tourists are constantly guided (or supervised or monitored depending on your perspective.) This was even the case when one person on Jim’s tour went for a jog.

“Our government guides near a Pyongyang Arch D’Triumph style arch that commemorates the end of WWII and the freedom of Korea from defeated Japan.” -Jim

Their first tour stop was the famous Pyongyang city center, where the 100 foot statue of Party founder Kim Il-sung stands.

Here, Jim said school children (pictured) “stand at attention and bow reverently.” Also, some new brides and grooms come here as well. For other citizens, this location is a “pseudo-religious” destination, a “pilgrimage,” said Jim.

Kim Il-sung is the father of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and the grandfather of today’s leader, Kim Jong-un. The group’s tour guides pointed out that then-leader Kim Jong-il was indeed not the president of North Korea. He was in charge of the military and the Party. The title of president is forever bestowed upon their eternal leader Kim Il-sung.

That’s not to say there aren’t other major religions represented. Buddhist temples exist and people attend them, said Jim. Their tour was also taken to a Protestant church service. And here was one instance where Jim and his fellow tourists were left alone. For one cannot be a member of the Party and be a member of a religion. Their guides waited outside. In the church, the tourists were handed headphones providing English translation of the sermon. It started with a Christian message, said Jim, but then the preacher drifted toward talk of the eventual reunification of Korea, lauding the Party, and chastising the United States.

According to Jim, North Korea holds animosity toward two counties–and one of them is not South Korea. Jim said that North Koreans see the South as “innocent victims caught up” in the mess created by the US. The United States, then, is one of the two countries loathed. Jim said they visited a memorial of a US-led civilian massacre on North Koreans. (From what I read, this incident was a case where the US military was guilty not preventing South Korean soldiers from enacting this murder. The North Koreans, however, maintain that American soldiers were the ones slaying the innocents.) The other country they dislike is Japan, said Jim, which actually receives more scorn due to their invasion during WWII.

As much as Jim’s tour was a showcase of North Korean history and culture, it also seemed a diplomatic trip showing these outsiders that North Korea is doing well.

“There was an element of ‘See, look at us,'” said Jim.

As such, they took the group to a hospital and a university.

Jim said that in all the places, tourists were free to photograph. This didn’t include those in uniform, though, of which Jim said there were many in the capital. In fact, it seemed that “most people, to some degree, were in the Party or had Party connections” in Pyongyang, he said.

There, Jim said the streets were unusually empty, and the citizens–though his interaction with them was limited–gave off a “dour” feel.

Streets of Pyongyang

Outside the capital, they visited a beach, where they could see only a few swimmers and some fishermen. The hotels outside the capital were not as nice, Jim said. It was also outside the capital that Jim said he experimented with the rumors that electricity rationing was necessary, if not accidental, due to insufficient energy allocation. So one night he fell asleep with the light and fan on. Jim said he awoke at different times in the night to find the light and fan randomly on and off. He concluded that regular power was a challenge outside the large cities.

Jim recalled enjoying the food.

“They’re big on roast duck,” he said.

But they wouldn’t be paying for duck–or anything else–with North Korea’s currency. It’s not allowed for tourist use.

North Korean won
North Korean won

Instead, vendors at a rest stop selling snacks or a museum or hotel gift shop took American dollars, euros, or Chinese renminbi.

Finally, their tour took them to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the “line in the sand” separating North from South Korea since the deescalation of the Korean War. At the North’s edge of this literal no-man’s land along the 38th parallel, soldiers keep watch.

“North Korean army officer with an American tourist in an area near the DMZ” -Jim

Officers stationed here spoke with the Korean-American in Jim’s group. This tourist would later share with Jim that these military men were very curious about what was happening outside their country.

“They didn’t know anything about the outside world,” said Jim.


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